Prejudice and Pride on the Road to the C-Suite: The Story of XL Catlin’s CDO

By Russ Banham

Carrier Management

Math has been the one constant in Henna Karna’s life.

The chief data officer of XL Catlin today heads up the data and digital transformation team at the global property/casualty insurer and reinsurer. She is widely considered to be one of the foremost data scientists in the insurance industry, beginning her career initially as an actuary and then becoming a predictive modeler and cryptographer for several government agencies.

Karna subsequently worked in both the business and technology sides of high technology and financial services companies, and spent a brief period in academia. She returned to the public sector to lead disruptive digital innovations at Verisk Analytics and AIG, serving the latter as global head of data and technology for the actuarial organization. She’s taking her work to the next level at XL Catlin, which has embarked on a robust initiative to make data a competitive differentiator and the nucleus of all business decisions.

“Our vision is to create an embedded digital ecosystem that intelligently converts data into business insights on a platform that can be used democratically by the company, our customers and our partners,” said Karna, who has a master’s in business administration from MIT and both a master’s and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Massachusetts. “In this journey, I am fortunate to have such a great team and the buy-in from across the technology and business sides of the organization. It is not our vision, our approach or our technology that will make this successful but rather our teamwork and partnership.”

The sheer volume of data today in digital format is a goldmine for all industries, assuming there are ways to rapidly unearth this intelligence. “The challenge is the time and effort required to access and analyze data,” said Karna. “Finding what you need at a point in time is elusive. Our mission is to transform the company to create this value in real time.”

Micro-Databases

XL Catlin is well on its way toward achieving this vision. (Disclaimer: The reporter for this article has also written content for XL Catlin.)

Different datasets now reside in an array of searchable micro-databases with transparent indicators, effectively transforming data into “reusable assets,” said Karna. “We are becoming hyper-flexible in how we leverage data, convert it into information, and then transform it into insights and intelligence.”

In these regards, XL Catlin is at the vanguard of the P/C insurance industry, which some see as being in the midst of an existential crisis. Under attack by InsurTech startups predicated on more efficient ways to underwrite, process and distribute insurance, carriers can no longer abide legacy operations and technology. It’s either transform or die; otherwise, customers will turn to competitors that sell innovative insurance coverages tailored specifically to their needs at lower premiums.

Karna is well positioned to lead such a transformative event. “Henna stretches the thinking of every team she is in,” said her former boss at AIG, William Kolbert, the insurer’s chief information officer/global consumer. “She knows what it takes to go from good to great.”

Prejudice and Pride

Karna is no stranger to difficult challenges. She came to the United States as a child from Purnia, India, the fifth largest of 38 cities within Bihar state, a rural area in the country’s eastern region. Purnia’s small farms produce multiple crops like rice, potatoes and wheat. It is one of India’s least literate cities, yet Karna’s father, Arun, persevered to become the first in his family to graduate college. He later received a master’s in mechanical engineering.

“My dad is the oldest of seven siblings from a village that struggled with water and electricity,” said Karna. “Everything he earned went to our village—the classic ‘oldest son’ responsibility.”

Her mother, Pushpa, a homeopathic doctor, came from a family that had been part of Ghandi’s movement in the second Indian Revolution. Post-independence, the family achieved a more comfortable existence. Pushpa’s father received his master’s in mechanical engineering from Oxford University in England and a Ph.D. in India. Arun sought to do the same and moved the family to Narragansett, R.I., to attend the University of Rhode Island.

Karna was five years old, the second oldest of four siblings. Her life was turned upside-down. “Money was very tight,” she recalled. “My father was given a very nominal stipend from the university to support the six of us. Kitchari rice and lentils became our most consistent meal at home. My mother walked four miles to buy groceries and back. She sewed all our clothes from scratch fabrics. My siblings and I had to walk or bike several miles each day to and from school, where we relied on meal tickets for lunch. It took several decades before my family could afford to buy a home.”

Tough as these conditions were, they were nothing compared to the virulent racism her family experienced. Narragansett then and today is almost completely white, with the most recent U.S. Census tallying a 95.8 percent population of Caucasians.

“We were the only Indian family anywhere,” said Karna. “I was the subject of intense bullying at school. Girls used to lock me in closets and purposefully trip me in the cafeteria carrying the tiny bit of food I had. One time, some kids stole my gym clothes and burned them in the trash while I was showering. Name-calling and emotional abuse were part of every day. I remember teachers telling the class generalized statements of how people were so poor and illiterate in India that they lived in trees and ate snakes, which is a complete fabrication. The ignorance was profound.”

Life was even worse at home. Karna’s family was involved in a near-fatal car accident. Her parents were hospitalized, and her brother, who suffered a skull fracture, was in and out of the hospital for months. “We went pretty quickly from barely surviving to an even more devastating situation,” she confided. “Survival became the only goal.”

There were some rare instances of goodness. Neighbors and other people pitched in to help until Arun was back at work. “My favorite memory is of the woman in school who served us lunch,” Karna said. “She spoke no English but could tell from my face that life was not easy. Because we did not eat beef, she purposefully saved sauce for me before adding the meat. It was a small gesture but meant so much to me at the time. I still remember her face.”

Saving Graces

Through their ordeals, the family found refuge in academics. Today, Karna’s sister is a physician and her two brothers work at Goldman Sachs and as a serial entrepreneur, respectively.

“I was slightly different than my siblings—more on the creative side,” she said. “I liked the arts, which is why I liked mathematics. Most people don’t see math as creative, but I do. I found writing mathematical proofs and arguing hypotheses to be a form of creativity. In a real world that had become insensible, math became my sanctuary.”

In middle school, Karna read epic fantasy books involving different worlds than the one in which she lived (David Eddings was her favorite author). She started reading Marvel comic books and was particularly attracted to The X-Men, relating to their singularities—the mutations that had made them superheroes. She nurtured her first real friendships with a girl named Maya and a boy named Benjamin, whose families were of European descent and welcoming.

“I think I would have quit school and forgotten how to appreciate people had Maya and Benjamin not been there,” she said, laughing. “Maya and I were both nonconformists. And Benjamin was the class valedictorian, a jock, and yet didn’t wear it with arrogance. Till this day, we stay in touch.”

Karna also found inspiration in the lives led by two historical figures—Abraham Lincoln and Rani Lakshmibai, a young woman who led the first revolt against British rule in India in 1857. Lakshmibai was 29 years old and queen of the princely state of Jhansiin in Northern India, having married the local Maharaja.

“The British compared her to Joan of Arc,” Karna noted. “She refused to accept the constraints put upon her and other women at the time. She was fearless in wanting to stop the practice of slavery and the ingrained racism against certain groups of Indian people that the British had encouraged. She inspired me to find the good in all things and to never accept the status quo, always looking at everything with a fresh perspective—something I try to bring to work every day.”

Karna was similarly impressed by Lincoln’s courage in speaking up for what he knew in his heart was right for America, despite the political consequences. “As a victim of racism, it was an awakening to realize that there were people who had the strength to stand up for what they knew was right,” she said. “Every era needs such people.”

Stepping Out

Karna gradually came out of her shell in high school. She became more vocal in class and no longer tried to conform to others’ expectation of what it meant to be American. As she developed confidence in her abilities, she discovered a newfound love for being Indian.

“We were advised to blend in to not get harassed,” she recalled. “The reality was that was going to happen anyway, so I decided to embrace my difference, braiding my hair and wearing Indian clothes to school. But I was still a classic teenage girl. I wore my salwar (a pair of light, loose, pleated trousers tapering to a tight fit around the ankles) with sneakers, which was pretty cool, I thought. Not that anyone else agreed!”

Mathematics remained her passion. Unlike English literature or history classes that focused on the western world, math was not subjective. “Because I didn’t really understand ‘American culture’ or get the jokes, my grades outside of math were not the best,” she acknowledged. “With math, there was always a right answer and I could find my way to it.”

She excelled in the subject. While in high school, she also indulged her creative interests, applying them to woodworking. She eventually got an after-school job carving walking canes. “I worked for this woman who gave me $30 for every cane I carved and then sold them for $450 each,” she said, laughing at the sheer capitalism.

The elaborate canes included a handle with a rope-like design with knots that Karna carved. She was interested in knot theory—the mathematical study of closed curves in three dimensions and their possible deformations without one part cutting through another. “I’d carve each rope handle based on a mathematical proof,” she said, referring to an argument for a mathematical theorem drawn from previously established theorems. “Then, I put together this little booklet that explained the theorem in terms of nature. Ultimately, I carved 30 different cane handles.”

Taking Charge

Karna brings the same diligence and precision to her role leading XL Catlin’s data and digital transformation. The company’s CEO Mike McGavick said the strategic imperative is crucial to the insurer’s differentiation in the evolving insurance industry. “Everything we do is focused on the customer—providing better insurance solutions and giving them even greater peace of mind—and to do that we need to be more efficient in how we underwrite, distribute our products and innovate. Data transformation is the gateway.”

Karna, who is tasked with building this gateway, explained its value: “By being able to access intelligent data instantly across the enterprise, our people, customers and partners like brokers will have the information they need to improve every link in the insurance value chain,” she said.

She provided an apt analogy of why this transformation is needed in the insurance sector. “Back when people took photographs and sent out the roll of film to be printed, they received back a dozen images,” she said. “It wasn’t difficult to find that photo of grandpa doing something silly. Today, you laboriously scroll through hundreds and hundreds of digital images to find the picture you’re looking for. It takes so long you get frustrated and move onto something else. Well, looking for data is like looking for that one photo.”

XL Catlin is making the hunt vastly simpler and easier. “We started by analyzing our ‘current state’ business capabilities—underwriting, actuarial work, how we go to market, product distribution, claims and so on—measuring dozens of metrics like the length of time it took in each case to extract information,” said Karna.

Her team then brainstormed how to speed up these processes while increasing the rigor and quality of data at the same time. Recently, the architecture needed to move different datasets in real time to the containerized micro-databases that have been built. Insurance processes like underwriting and claims can now draw from the containers.

Asked for an example, she pointed to the data amassed in a micro-database on different policy endorsements. Previously, there was no way to analyze each endorsement type, as there was no central repository. Karna calls this a “classic data problem.”

“It used to be that if someone wanted to understand the trends around a particular policy endorsement to measure them against other endorsements, they would have to manually ferret out the answers in a ‘business as usual’ way,” she explained. “Now, the insights are there for the taking. Time instead is directed toward information analysis that shapes an insightful story.”

Is it hard work?

“It’s an effort,” Karna conceded. “But we see it more as a mission with a journey, one that we’ve been on for the past year-and-one-half. We’ve taken the time to do this right—up-skilling colleagues’ capabilities, changing the entire technical stack [the software that provides the infrastructure for a computer] and modifying our KPIs [key performance indicators]. I can say that we have officially created assets out of our data. We now have measurable value across four pillars: operational, foundational, strategic and disruptive.”

Finding Her Way

As the transformation initiative moves forward, Karna’s embrace of mathematics as a form of creativity differentiates XL Catlin’s approach. The company’s digital innovation is one of the key factors in the decision by French insurer AXA to acquire the company. “My career has been varied, broad and fairly nonlinear, but the reality is that math has always been my forte,” she said. “Mathematics is analytical, and the heart of analytics is data. Most companies now realize that data is how they must drive their businesses forward in future.”

Karna has her hands on the wheel at XL Catlin. “Henna is superbly positioned from her career experiences and interests to lead our company forward in becoming the industry’s premier data-driven commercial insurer,” said CEO McGavick. “She brings a business lens to solving problems yet also has tremendous analytical experience.”

McGavick shared something he had written to Karna following her interview for the chief data officer position in 2016. “Happily, in most cases, I meet some really impressive people in senior interviews…Even against such high expectations, I did not expect to be as impressed as I was by our session and your clear passion for your work and the people you seek to lead.”

XL Catlin’s Chief Information Officer/Reinsurance Dave Walker is confident that the company’s data and digital transformation initiative is on the right track. “This is the first time in decades that I really see a very high possibility of us succeeding in a data strategy,” said Walker. “We’ve made attempts before and thought we were on the right path, but it didn’t have this level of thoroughness in the vision and didn’t create this level of energy in the company. With Henna at the helm, I’m confident we’re going to get there.”

Karna is a happy person today, a wife and mother balancing work-life demands like other women with demanding but meaningful jobs. She no longer feels the need to wear a salwar to boldly state her uniqueness. In today’s multicultural workforce, she blends easily into the quilt, just one “American” among many with a unique background story. “On occasion, I’ll wear a nose ring or a saree to remind me of my cultural heritage,” she confessed. “But the truth is, I just really like the style.”

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and author.